Am I the only one to whom it has seemed like a few months since the last Western Collegiate Hockey Association action? Well, on Friday, it will have been 27 days since the teams last took the ice in conference action. While there haven’t been any changes in the conference standings since then, teams have made advances and declines.
Denver was probably the most bullish team over the holidays. Not only did the Pioneers defeat ranked teams in Boston College and New Hampshire, they won their own Denver Cup to boot. Coming into the break on a little bit of a downslide, the Pioneers came out of it with a 10-8 record and new life for a NCAA run.
As far as the bears go, a pack of teams didn’t do all too much to give the WCHA a good name in the non-conference portion. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan Tech each finished fourth in its own four-team tournament.
Even Colorado College slipped up a bit, falling from a No. 2 ranking to fifth after losing to Boston College and New Hampshire and tying Maine, all in the state of Colorado.
But throw that all out the window now — there’s a conference championship to be won. Of course, you’ll find a hard time finding anyone who believes someone other than North Dakota (21 points) or CC (18 points) is going to come away with the MacNaughton Cup.
So, I guess you can call it the race for third. In spots three through nine in the conference, only six points separate the top from the bottom. There’s obviously still some ground to be made.
Take Michigan Tech, for example. Sure, they have a dismal 4-13-1 overall record, but, in the conference, they are only four points — two wins — out of first place. St. Cloud State and Denver, each tied for sixth with 10 points, are two points back. Tell me there’s not going to be some excitement down the stretch. It may not be near the top, but when it comes down to who hosts the No. 5-No. 6 first-round playoff series, points become very important.
OK, now that I’m all pumped up for the second half, let’s get to it.
Colorado College (14-5-1, 9-3 WCHA: 2nd) vs. St. Cloud State (9-8-1, 5-7 WCHA: T-6th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.
ON THE TIGERS: Does Colorado College have something to prove here? Probably. Coming off a weekend where they could only manage a tie against two ranked opponents — Maine and New Hampshire, the tie coming against Maine — it may appear the Tigers haven’t found what they’re going to need when it comes to tournament time.
"I thought the only game we played very poorly was against New Hampshire," CC coach Don Lucia said. "We just didn’t have any jump. I kind of came away with the sense that we’re right there."
There is little question where the problem lies for the Tigers. The offense usually puts up the kind of numbers Lucia’s team needs, but the defense isn’t always so superb. The CC offense leads WCHA teams with 96 goals scored in all games, but is in the middle of the pack on defense, allowing 60 goals.
"We have to keep improving defensively," Lucia said. "If we’re going to be there at the end and go as far as we want to at playoff time, that’s the area that we have to continue to work to get better at."
When CC allows three or fewer goals, it is 11-0-1 this season. The Tiger defense gave up four goals against New Hampshire (4-1 loss) and three to Maine (3-3 tie).
If there’s a concern on offense, it’s that the usual suspects are doing most of the work. Brian Swanson has at least a point in 10 consecutive games. He has 17 goals and 25 assists for 42 points this season.
Darren Clark has been on the scoring sheet in 17 of CC’s 20 games this season. He leads the nation with nine power-play goals.
In 15 of those 20 games, one CC player has been responsible for two or more goals.
Of course, if it weren’t for a couple of defensemen, last weekend would have been a total wash for the Tigers. Dan Peters and Scott Swanson scored 1:18 apart in the third period to help CC tie Maine.
ON THE HUSKIES: St. Cloud State’s 5-7 WCHA record isn’t exactly an accurate mark of its play in the first half.
Or, maybe it is. The Huskies had a devil of a time finding a goaltender who could play well consistently. However, it seems like they’ve found at least one now.
Dean Weasler has a 6-3 record and a 3.66 goals-against average, which, incidentally, ranks third out of the team’s three goaltenders. Scott Meyer has a 2.97 GAA but is only 2-4-1. Go figure.
Weasler and Meyer each came away with a victory last weekend against Minnesota State-Mankato, Weasler taking a 6-3 victory on Saturday and Meyer playing two periods in a 3-1 win on Sunday. He came out after suffering a concussion that will keep him out this weekend.
Weasler’s play has been enough to smooth over the goaltending problems.
"He’s solidified himself and he’s been playing real well," Huskies coach Craig Dahl said. "That was our problem earlier and now he’s gotten consistent — he’s practicing well and he’s playing well. That’s really a big factor."
The feeling around St. Cloud might be that if this team could have found its goaltending earlier in the season, they would be in the top three right now. Of course, they’re only two points out of that spot, but you get the idea.
One of the reasons goaltending is so important for the Huskies is that they get worked. Despite the fact that SCSU has outscored opponents 66-62 this season, they have been outshot, 571-519. That was aided by last weekend’s action, which saw Mankato outshoot the Huskies 72-49. Dahl said, however, that most of the opposition’s shots come from the outside, which he doesn’t mind so much.
Offensively, SCSU has a number of players on tears of late. Junior center Matt Noga has seven points in his last four games and has at least a point in seven of the last eight. Senior right winger George Awada has a seven game point-scoring streak going. Senior left winger Jason Goulet has a point in five of the last six games.
"You always want your older players to be the leaders, and they’re going to do most of the scoring or lack thereof," Dahl said.
Another reason this weekend’s series may mean a little more for the Huskies: Dahl is looking for his 200th victory at St. Cloud State. He currently sits at 199.
THE MATCHUP: St. Cloud State always seems to present a challenge to the Tigers. Earlier this season, the Huskies came out of Colorado Springs with a split. Dahl plans on putting his best out against Swanson and Clark. If the Huskies can hold down the big two, they might be able to come away with some much needed points.
PICKS: St. Cloud, 5-4; Colorado College, 3-2
Minnesota (7-10-3, 5-5-2 WCHA: T-3rd) vs. Denver (10-8, 5-7 WCHA: T-6th) Saturday, 7:05 MT, Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo. Sunday, 7:05 MT, McNichols Sports Arena, Denver, Colo.
ON THE GOPHERS: It’s a little hard to use as an excuse for Minnesota’s recent slide, but the Gophers have played one of the toughest non-conference schedules around.
They faced Princeton and Boston University in the Mariucci Classic and, last weekend, traveled to face Boston College. Of course, the best they could do in those four games was a 3-3 tie last Sunday against the Eagles.
In fact, after trailing 2-0 after the first period and 3-1 midway through the third on Sunday, Mike Anderson and Rico Pagel scored goals to force the tie.
But still, this isn’t exactly how the Gophers would have liked to start the 1999 calendar year. And the road doesn’t appear to get any easier for them. In the next month, they will make trips to conference leader North Dakota and second-place Colorado College.
"We’ve had a really tough schedule from Day One," Gopher coach Doug Woog said. "We started with the Icebreaker, which is a good-quality tournament, we had Princeton in here, Michigan, Michigan State, then we go to Boston College. We certainly have faced some of the best teams in the country."
For now, Minnesota has to take charge of its WCHA game after enduring a 48-day conference layoff.
Looking into the numbers for the Gophers, it appears the score after the first period is usually a big factor in determining the winner. In victories this season, Minnesota has outscored its opponents 8-2 during the first 20 minutes of play. In losses, they have been outscored 16-6. Over the last two seasons, the Gophers are 1-17-2 when trailing after one period.
Statistics also show the Gophers are a completely different team in wins than they are in losses. Goaltender Adam Hauser, in his six wins, has a 1.17 goals-against average and a .955 save percentage. In his nine losses and two ties, the numbers balloon to a 4.89 GAA and a .834 SV%.
"I don’t know which is first, if we play better and he makes more saves or he makes more saves and we look like we’re playing better," Woog said.
Anderson is another example. In wins, he is plus-5, in losses, minus-11.
ON THE PIONEERS: Is this a different Denver squad than the one that entered Christmas break on a four-game losing skid? The Pioneers certainly hope so.
They have won three of their last four games, including wins over ranked teams in Boston College and New Hampshire. They haven’t come by much, however, as each of the last three games have been decided by one goal or an empty-netter making it a two-goal margin.
The Pioneers’ 4-2 victory over New Hampshire was due in large part to the efforts of James Patterson. The senior left winger scored two goals, making it the third time this season and second in four games he has done so. He leads the Pioneers in goals with 13, and has scored at least one point in five of his last six games. In that span, he has six goals and two assists.
"He’s working very hard for his chances," DU coach George Gwozdecky said. "A lot of times, what happens, especially to guys who are considered goal scorers, is that they sometimes start looking to score instead of working to score. That’s when they start struggling. James is really working hard to score. He’s creating a lot of chances for himself, he’s doing little things in pursuit of the puck. As a result, good things are happening."
Senior center Gavin Morgan also extended his goal-scoring streak to four games with tallies in both the win over New Hampshire and the loss to Maine. Sophomore center Bjorn Engstrom now has a four-game point-scoring streak going.
The win was also prosperous for center Kelly Popadynetz and defenseman Erik Adams, who each broke scoreless stretches. Popadynetz’s skid had reached six games while Adams’ was at four.
Goaltender Stephen Wagner made 30 saves against UNH to move his record to 10-8. His overall goals-against average is 2.88 and he has a .888 save percentage.
"I think Steve is going to be at his best when he is below three [goals against per game], and if he can get it below 2.5, that’s even better," Gwozdecky said. "Very similar to the way we would play in front of him, he would play very well on certain nights and play average on other nights. He has the capability of being one of our marquee players, and that’s what we expect from him, that he’s not only going to play well in big games, but perhaps steal a game when we’re not playing that well in front of him."
Denver, however, seems to have the same first-period fate as Minnesota. When DU scores first, it is 7-1; when its opponent does, the Pioneers are 3-7.
But the most important number for the Pioneers appears to be five. When DU scores five or more, it is 6-0. When its opponent puts five on the board, DU is 0-5.
THE MATCHUP: Denver has won three of its last four. Minnesota hasn’t held a lead in its last four. Sounds simple. But, as we all know, hockey isn’t that simple. In fact, if you wanted a number to contradict an easy Pioneer sweep, take this: Minnesota has won six of the last eight games in Denver.
PICKS: Denver, 4-2; Minnesota, 7-5
Alaska-Anchorage (8-8-2, 5-5-2 WCHA: T-3rd) vs. Michigan Tech (4-13-1, 4-8 WCHA: 8th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35-7:05 ET, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, Houghton, Mich.
ON THE SEAWOLVES: Alaska-Anchorage is probably the biggest surprise of the 1998-99 season. While they are only .500, both overall and in the conference, they stand tied for third place.
Much of that can probably be attributed to the Seawolves’ players buying into coach Dean Talafous system. It’s taken a while for his style of play to catch on at other schools, but maybe it’s happening in his third season in Anchorage.
In 1997-98, the Seawolves won a total of six games. This season, they have won that many in their last eight chances. They have just one loss in their last nine games. Talafous said the team is going to try to play this second half much like the first.
"We knew we were going to have a big break, so we said we have a lot of young guys, let’s play it like two different seasons," Talafous said. "Let’s give it all we’ve got in the first half and see how well we do, take a break, come back and give it all we’ve got in the second half. We felt we finished strong in the first season, and now we’re going to start our second one, and try to do as well or better."
And, what do you know, Anchorage finally busted out of its power-play funk. Well, maybe "busted out" is a little too strong of a term. In its last series, against Denver, Dec. 11-12, Eric Lawson scored his first career power-play goal, and UAA’s first since Oct. 11. The Seawolves are now 2-for-73 with the man advantage this season and 1-for-37 in the WCHA.
Possibly the biggest reason for Anchorage’s turnaround has been the netminding of freshman Gregg Naumenko. He leads the WCHA in all-games goals-against at 2.26 and his league average of 2.11 is second in the conference. He leads both areas in save percentage (.930 in the conference and .920 overall). In his last five games, Naumenko is 4-0-1 with a .966 SV% and a 0.98 GAA.
Another reason for the Seawolves’ success is the play of their freshmen. Of the 112 points this season, freshmen account for 49 of them. Of the 44 goals, 19 belong to rookies. Four of UAA’s top five scorers are freshmen — Mike Scott and Steve Cygan are tied for second (4-6–10) and Jeff Carlson and Gregg Zaporzan are tied for fourth (2-7–9).
"I’ve always had good goalies and I think it’s because I look for kids that are tough mentally," Talafous said. "The rest of the players always play smart with a lot of discipline in front of them. You have to have both. The combination has provided for some pretty good team defense."
Junior Rob Douglas continues to lead the team with 13 points on nine goals and four assists.
ON THE HUSKIES: The dropoff from third place — where Anchorage sits — to eighth place — where Michigan Tech currently stands — is so slight that Huskies coach Tim Watters said his team can forget about the first half of the season and hunt for a top-five spot with a solid second half.
"Yes, it is a new year and we want to come out of the gate as quickly as possible," he said.
Despite losing two games at the Great Lakes Invitational, Watters said there was a certain amount of value in just playing the defending national champions in the first round.
"I thought at times we played very well in the game," he said. "The concern was I don’t think we really threatened them at any time during the game."
Brad Mueller leads the Huskies with eight goals, including three in his last five games. That’s a little of what the Huskies expected from him.
"Brad’s coming along; we’re fairly pleased with him," Watters said. "We expected him to put some points up on the board. A few more would be nice, also."
Sophomore forward Matt Ulwelling is on top of the Tech scoring list, three points in front of Mueller with 15 points (six goals, nine assists). Defenseman Adrian Fure has averaged a point per game in his last eight, scoring four goals and four assists.
Tech plays its next four games at home, but who knows what kind of help that will be. Each of the Huskies’ four victories this season has come on the road. They are 0-7 at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
The Huskies have played a bit of hot and cold recently. After winning three straight, they now are in the midst of a six game winless streak, going 0-5-1 in that stretch.
David Weninger has logged the majority of ice time this season, putting up a 3.22 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage.
THE MATCHUP: These teams split a series earlier in the season in Anchorage. For Michigan Tech to win here, it is going to have to break its home skid. Anchorage, however, is only 1-4-2 on the road this season. Still, that’s better than 0-7 at home.
PICKS: Alaska-Anchorage, 5-3; Michigan Tech, 3-1
Minnesota-Duluth (5-13-2, 2-8-2 WCHA: 9th) vs. Wisconsin (6-10-2, 5-6-1 WCHA: 5th) Friday-Saturday, 7:35 CT, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
ON THE BULLDOGS: On the heels of consecutive second-place tournament finishes — one in the Marine Midland Bank Holiday Tournament and the other at their own Silverado Shootout — Minnesota-Duluth begins the second half of the schedule in ninth place.
But, as I have already pounded to death in other parts of this week’s preview, there isn’t that much difference between the third-place team and the ninth-place team. (If you haven’t already read it elsewhere, it’s only six points)
Duluth stomped Air Force, 7-2, before falling to UMass-Lowell, 3-0, in the championship game of the Silverado Shootout last weekend. Against Air Force, sophomore left wing Derek Derow and senior right wing Curtis Bois each scored two goals and junior right wing Colin Anderson and sophomore left wing Ryan Homstol each contributed three points.
Good fortunes as of late may be in the Bulldogs favor this weekend. They are currently in the middle of a three-game WCHA unbeaten streak. Plus, they have won three of their last four road games. UMD is 4-6-1 away from the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center this season.
Junior Jeff Scissons leads the Bulldogs with 18 points this season. He has 10 goals to lead UMD, 6 of them coming on the power play. Four other Bulldogs — Homstol, Jesse Fibiger, Mark Carlson and Mark Gunderson — join Scissons in double digits for points.
Brant Nicklin continues to be the workhorse for UMD in goal. He sports a 3.00 goals-against average and a .898 save percentage. He has started in 72 consecutive WCHA games.
ON THE BADGERS: The best news Wisconsin could hear right now is that it is getting two key parts of its lineup back, and maybe even a third.
Forward Matt Doman and defenseman Dave Tanabe, both freshmen, will rejoin the team after missing three games while with the U.S. Junior National team. Also, the Badgers hope to have sophomore forward Kevin Granato back in action after rehabbing a pesky leg injury.
More good news: The streak is over. Coach Jeff Sauer’s team had gone all 17 games this season without scoring more than three goals before unloading for six against Nebraska-Omaha on New Year’s Eve. In fact, they not only scored four goals in the game, they scored four goals in the third period.
Junior winger Dustin Kuk has quietly built a 12-game scoring streak for the Badgers. In that stretch, he has two goals and 13 assists. He leads UW this season with four goals and 14 assists for 18 points. Steve Reinprecht (8-7–15) and Jeff Dessner (5-6–11) are the only other Badgers with double digits in points.
Dessner, a defenseman, has turned on the offense recently. He has scored two goals in each of his last two games and is in a three-way tie for the plus-minus lead at +6.
Graham Melanson is still second in the WCHA in overall goals-against at 2.47. He has saved 91 percent of the shots he has faced.
THE MATCHUP: To put it simply, Duluth has not exactly had a whole lot of success against Wisconsin. In the last eight games, Wisconsin is 7-0-1. In the last 12, UW is 10-1-1. Earlier this season, the Badgers took a pair of 3-1 victories in Duluth.
PICKS: Wisconsin, 4-2; 3-0
North Dakota (13-2-1, 10-1-1 WCHA: 1st) vs. Minnesota State-Mankato (9-7-2) Friday-Saturday, 7:05 CT, Midwest Wireless Center, Mankato, Minn.
ON THE SIOUX: What’s this? The No. 1 North Dakota Fighting Sioux lost a game? Don’t be so surprised, coach Dean Blais will tell you. Every team’s bound to lose a game here and there.
"We’re not that good, otherwise we’d be playing at the next level and I wouldn’t have any kids in here," Blais said. "It’s going to be tough enough to win the league, we’re going to lose games between now and the end of the year too."
Maybe the Sioux’s 4-3 loss last Sunday was just a surprise considering the ease with which North Dakota had handled Notre Dame a night earlier. On Saturday, the Sioux scored three goals in the first 101 seconds en route to a 8-1 victory.
Another bad point from the loss to the Irish was that they lost goaltender Andy Kollar with a concussion. Blais said he will hold Kollar out of this weekend’s action as a precaution.
That only leaves Karl Goehring (9-1-1, 2.53 GAA, .909 SV%) in net. Gee, that’s a tough situation, isn’t it?
North Dakota plays its final non-conference series of the season this weekend, leaving the Sioux with 16 straight conference games to close out the regular season.
"Our players play a lot better when there’s something on the line," Blais said. "We trying to win another WCHA championship … and our guys are real excited about the opportunity (to win a 3rd straight WCHA title)."
Jason Blake (10-18–28) may be the scoring leader for the Sioux, but the Panzers have the hot hands. Senior right wing Jay has an 11-game point streak while sophomore center Jeff has a 10-game string.
ON THE MAVERICKS: Minnesota State-Mankato coach Don Brose always puts a quality team on the ice. His success can be seen in his record. In his 29th season with the Mavericks, he has a 506-312-66 record.
Mankato features junior center Aaron Fox, who leads the Mavericks with nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points. Fox has scored 13 points in his last eight games and has scored points in 13 of his 17 games this season.
Senior center Rob White is tied for second in points with 18 and leads Mankato with 11 goals.
The Mavericks are 2-4 this season against the WCHA after completing last season 3-12-2 against WCHA teams.
THE MATCHUP: North Dakota could be poised for another series with the Mavericks at the end of the season. For the second straight season, Mankato will be seeded No. 10 in the WCHA playoffs. North Dakota, the No. 1 team last season, defeated Mankato 5-2 and 5-4 to advance to the Final Five.
PICKS: North Dakota, 6-4 and 5-2
Easy enough to remember — all of next week’s games take place on Friday and Saturday, including the matchup between the league’s top two teams:
Wisconsin at Alaska-Anchorage North Dakota at Colorado College Denver at Minnesota-Duluth St. Cloud State at Michigan Tech Minnesota State-Mankato at Minnesota